Whatcom County Passes Ordinance for Supportive and Affordable Housing Fund

The County Council votes to approve an ordinance to fund supportive and affordable housing on Tuesday, Oct. 22. // Photo by Melody Kazel

By Melody Kazel

A new ordinance from the Whatcom County Council could add more than half a million dollars of funding for supportive and affordable housing every year for the next 20 years. 

Supportive and affordable housing is a combination of services, such as rental assistance and affordable housing developments, that are designed to help people who are homeless or at a very low income level attain stable housing. 

“This is a great opportunity that the legislature gave us to retain some local sales tax money for affordable housing. I’m looking forward to seeing what we do with it,” County Council Member Todd Donovan said. 

The fund will bring in about $650,000 to $700,000 per year that will last for 20 years,  according to Ann Beck, human services supervisor with the Whatcom County Health Department. The county should be able to begin collecting the funds in January, said Beck. 

Samya Lutz, housing and services program manager with the City of Bellingham, said what makes this funding different is that it doesn’t require the definition of chronic homelessness. When someone struggling with a disabling condition has been homeless for a year or more, or repeatedly, they fall under the definition of chronically homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The fund will be there to assist community members at or below 60% of the area median income. Area median income calculates a middle family income for the county and uses that to determine eligibility for affordable housing. 

The ordinance passed unanimously at the County Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 22. There will be no new tax on residents. It will allow the county to keep a percentage of local sales and use taxes that are normally paid to the state, according to Beck. 

Washington state just released the rules that will govern these funds and will require an annual report about what the funds were used for. The money can only be used for supportive and affordable housing services, according to Beck. Specifically, the funds can be put towards things like new affordable housing units and rental assistance. Beck said the Housing Advisory Committee will be looking into the best way to use the funds within the affordable housing systems in Whatcom County. 

According to Lutz, most county affordable housing funds require the chronic homelessness definition, which needs documentation to prove. 

“As you can imagine for someone living on the streets, that can be very difficult to prove,” Lutz said. 

This fund would be able to reach those people without the proper documentation who need supportive housing but do not have the definition of chronically homeless, according to Lutz. 

The programs Lighthouse Mission Ministries direct people to don’t typically require the chronic homelessness definition but more funding always helps, according to Nick Evans, recovery services manager for Lighthouse.“This could be a critical revenue source to maintain support for folks who really need it,” Lutz said. 

One of the revenue sources that goes toward affordable housing is document recording fees. These fees are managed by the Whatcom County Health Department who will be in charge of managing the new fund as well, according to Lutz. 

“When the interest rates went down, a lot of people refinanced their homes, so document recording fees’ revenue went up,” Lutz said. “Now that the interest rates have slightly gone up or stabilized, there’s not as many folks recording documents and so, of course, they get less revenue from that.” 

The new housing fund could make up for that lost revenue and add more funding to help the county continue providing the same level of housing assistance they are now. 

Mike Parker, director of the Whatcom homeless service center at the opportunity Council, said this fund is a huge win for the council and their partners. 

“It’s going to give all of our partners, and all those case managers, and all those families they work with more possibility,” Parker said. “We can serve more people.” 

He said the funds the opportunity council may receive could go toward rental assistance or be bonded by the County Council, allowing them to borrow against future revenues to get a bigger amount today. Regardless of what the County Council decides this new revenue should go toward, Parker said it will have a positive impact. 

“They’re all going to make more affordable housing for folks that are homeless,” Parker said. 

This ordinance came about as a result of efforts from the Washington state’s associations of Counties, Cities and Low Income Housing Alliance according to Beck. They were trying to figure out how to access more funding for housing. Beck said it was a team effort between these associations and the state that led to the legislation allowing cities and counties to keep a percentage of local sales and use taxes for affordable housing. 

This fund isn’t going to be the magic solution that fixes everything, Beck said. 

There are other things impacting the homeless community along with the need for affordable housing, according to Evans. He works with people from the homeless community who are trying to deal with substance use disorders. 

“We just need more treatment beds or we need more capacity to treat people. We need more and better outreach into the homeless communities to let them know of the available options,” Evans said. 

The new housing fund may not be able to address Evans concerns. However, Beck said the fund will help build more capacity for affordable housing and is a great addition to the funding Whatcom County currently has.

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